100 Years ago today: Calling on San Francisco

Trigger Warning: Quotations of language/imagery that is racially offensive

One of the things that jumps out at the reader of the newspapers of one hundred years ago is how clearly the \”flavours\” of different regions, cities, states and even classes survives over time. It isn\’t that the newspapers of the relatively undeveloped territories and comparatively newly admitted states reflected a more rural and geographically isolated view of the world than did the newspapers of the larger cities. Indeed, one of the surprising things one finds that most newspapers, once they reached the stage of daily (or at least six day a week) editions, included news from all over the world. It is easy to follow the news of the rebellion in China, the Italian campaign in Northern Africa, the unrest in Mexico and the major political issues in Canada and Great Britain.

Armed with some knowledge of the history of segregation and \”Jim Crow\” laws in American history one isn\’t too surprised to come across an almost gleeful description of a lynching in a newspaper published in a southern city or town. However it is not difficult to find the same story picked up several days later in a newspaper printed in a northern city. One may more often come across the descriptor \”colored\” after someone\’s name in a southern newspaper than those in the north but that may be due more to the fact that there were fewer African-Americans living in the regions served by some of the northern newspapers.

While most newspapers made an effort to cover news of national and international interest some events and concerns are simply more salient to one community than they would be for another. For example, much of the front page of The Tacoma Times of November 20 1911, was taken up with news about the water emergency of nearby Seattle. Reading the headline is enough to explain why the editors of The Tacoma times felt their readership would be very interested in that particular story.

SEATTLE PEOPLE RUSH HERE / Panic Stricken Over Water Shortage

But why, the casual reader might wonder, did The San Francisco Call run so many \”human interest\” stories about this fellow named Ishi? The following are just a few of the headlines about Ishi that appeared in the The Call over the previous few months.

Who exactly was this Ishi? As Georges T. Dodds explained in his review of George R. Stewart\’s Earth Abides:

In 1911, an emaciated man who spoke an unknown language wandered out of the mountains of Northern California and was jailed as a vagrant. \”Discovered\” by Dr. Alfred Louis Kroeber (Ursula K. Le Guin\’s father) and his associates in the anthropology department of The University of California at Berkeley, this wilderness man was identified as the last survivor of the white man\’s slaughter of his Californian Native American tribe, the Yahi, and probably the last entirely free-living Indian in North America.

Ishi appeared out of the mountains at a liminal time in the history of the state of California. The west coast was no longer a frontier. The only areas of the contiguous United States that had not yet been admitted to the Union as states were interior territories. Comfortable in their assurance that they have \”won\” the battle and displaced (often by killing them) the original inhabitants of what became California people could exoticize and fetishize this lone remnant of those they had deplaced/replaced and erased. And like shoppers anxiously reading Consumer\’s Digest after making their purchases, the public gained assurance that they had done right every time Ishi was reported to have done something \”savage.\” See, they could think (or say), see how childish he is. He is better off now. Someone like this couldn\’t build the great cities we have erected on the coast. Ishi\’s people could not have forged a nation that spread from coast to coast.

Ishi had become for the readers of The Call a symbol of their power, their might and their (self perceived) meritocratic right to control the lands on which Ishi\’s people had once lived.

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